When Joseph Hungbo was lucky enough to join Ross County on a season-long loan last summer, he grabbed it with both hands – but admits he had no idea where she was !
Little did he know it was a 557 mile drive from Vicarage Road to the county’s Victoria Park in the small town of Dingwall, about as far north as he could travel to play football professional in the UK before ending up at sea.
He was to make 33 appearances for The Staggies, scoring six goals – including an unforgettable 30-yard free-kick in a 5-0 win at Dundee United which earned Hungbo the Scottish Premiership goal of the season.
However, he readily admits that his knowledge of Ross County is far greater now than it was 12 months ago.
“I didn’t know where Ross County was, to be completely honest!” he said.
“When the option was presented to me, I had no idea where it was. I didn’t even know where Inverness was.
“But at the time I was told there was an opportunity to play in the Scottish Premiership, I wasn’t really too bothered where exactly Ross County was. I just wanted to go play.
The main thing for Hungbo was the promise of playing time.
“I was told I would go there to play, not just to be part of the team,” he said. “It was good enough for me, I wanted to play games.
“I spoke to the manager, Malky Mackay, and once he spoke to me I was totally sold on the idea. It was a difficult move and a very different experience, especially settling in during the first two months.
“I went there on my own and to be honest it didn’t take me long to settle in and figure out the basics. I stayed alone in a small hotel for the first few days, then I had my place.
“I actually wanted it to be something where it was just me. Mentally, I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could do it.
“I wanted to show myself that no matter what was going on and how difficult it was, I had the drive and determination to pull through. I had good people to support me: my family, the people at the club, even the other players. When I arrived, the other players helped me get settled.
It was the boost and experience the winger needed after arriving at Watford three summers ago, earning his first-team chance but then suffering a serious hamstring injury.
“When I joined Watford I just wanted to get into the team. No one joins a club just to be part of things, you want to make an impression and make a difference,” he said.
“That was my first thought when I arrived here: how can I tell the difference? Under Javi Gracia, I was just trying to make a good impression. I started very well and was flying in the under-23s, scoring goals.
“I felt like I was on track and I worked hard to make sure I kept doing that. All I did was create a positive impression.
After a loan spell at Aldershot in the first half of the 2020/21 season, Hungbo came on as a substitute in the FA Cup defeat at Manchester United in January.
He then made a series of four appearances from the bench in March and April before making his first start at Brentford in May – but that was cruelly cut short after 24 minutes.
“I found out that morning that I was going to start and I was delighted,” said the 22-year-old.
“When I got out on the pitch, I just wanted to run around. And then all of a sudden, my worst nightmare: my hamstrings were gone.
“I knew straight away it was bad because I couldn’t move. It was as if someone had shot me in the leg. It was crazy, the pain was unbearable.
“I wondered if I had done something to cause it, but I realized it wasn’t my fault. It was better if it happened towards the end of the season, not at the beginning.
This meant that all plans for the summer had been changed as Hungbo had to get back into shape.
“It was really a tough summer,” he admitted.
“I didn’t take any kind of vacation, I was literally at the training ground day in and day out. I thank the club physios and the club staff who helped me through this ordeal. I had a hard time. hurt some days and they helped me.
“As a footballer you get used to there being ups and downs, and that was a period when I was really depressed. I felt I had missed my opportunity. But I I put my head down, worked very hard and did everything I was advised to do to get back on my feet.
“In fact, I now think it was a blessing in disguise because if it hadn’t happened I might not have been loaned out next season.”
The move to the north of Scotland for a season proved to be a big success for Hungbo, who even scored in a loss to Rangers and clocked in every minute of those big games.
“These games are amazing,” he said. “The atmosphere in places like Celtic Park and Ibrox is amazing.
“I understand now how difficult it is to play against top teams like that, they are very difficult opponents. But I learned that it’s just about giving 100%. The result will be the result, but I made sure in every game that I gave 100%, throughout the game.
“If you give 100 per cent in every game, you know you can’t do anything else.
“I have been pleased with the quality of my stay in Ross County, and again I have to thank those around me who helped me make the most of this opportunity. They gave me confidence, and I gave 100%, and it seemed to go well.
“As the weeks and months went on, I felt really good. We started slowly, but the team started winning and we started from there.
Of course, we have to talk about ‘that’ goal – the third in County’s 5-0 win at Dundee on Wednesday October 27 which was to claim it Goal of the Season: a 30-yard free-kick described by Scottish newspaper The Herald as “a venomous curling strike that kissed the underside of the crossbar before landing deep in the net”.
“It was my first professional goal, and to be honest, if someone put a ball down and told me to do it again, I probably couldn’t!” he said, “It was just something that happened in the moment. I heard the gaffer behind me shout to shoot, so I thought ‘yes, why not’. I wasn’t even on set pieces but it was just something that, at the time, I felt optimistic and confident to do.
“It was an incredible feeling to see him come in.”
Hungbo knew having a successful season in Scotland counted for little when he returned to Watford this summer.
“Even though I realized what I had in Ross County, I knew coming back to Watford was going to be tough,” he said.
“I was well aware that I was going to fight for a place in a championship team. It’s not easy to integrate a group that has just been relegated.
“I knew I had to elevate my performance again and get that second wind. I focus on that hunger and fight to be involved in every game and then help win those games.
Footage from the first week of pre-season showed Hungbo chatting one-on-one with new head coach Rob Edwards as they walked around the training ground.
“Full credit to Rob, this approach helps 100%. He took me to chat on the first day of pre-season and explained to me that he wanted to get to know me as a person and as a player. It’s so much better to know everyone as a person, and not just as a player.
“You learn how a person is, what they do, how they do it, why they do it. I think that’s really important, a lot of managers wouldn’t take the time to do that. Rob started this from day one and he’s been there for me ever since, and what I want to do is work hard for him and give him my 100 per cent.”
With Edwards preferring a 3-5-2, it’s been a summer so far adjusting to new form.
“It’s a different formation to what the team played last season, but what the manager wants us to do is what we have to do to the best of our abilities. It takes patience because changing form takes time to work,” Hungbo said.
“For me as a right-back or a right-winger, I just like getting down the line and making crosses. I want to take the team to the other end of the pitch but also take care of my defensive duties.
“Every position on the pitch is hard work, and that’s something you can’t buy. You have to do it yourself. Hard work is a choice you make, to win every tackle, to fight for it. every ball, challenge every head.
So what is Hungbo hoping for now that he’s back in Hertfordshire?
“I just want to go and enjoy my football,” he said.
“People ask about goals, but I feel like setting goals puts unnecessary pressure on you. I don’t want to feel like I have to do a certain type of thing a certain way just to hit a target.
“The more you focus on enjoying the football you play and give your 100 per cent every time, the better you will improve. I love what I do and I will do everything I can to get selected and get on the pitch.
“The main thing is to love playing football, to work hard and hopefully that will get me to good places.”